After 56 years, popular blind masseur at Greensburg YMCA retiring
The first time Keith Houser met YMCA masseur Phil Horrell, who is legally blind, Houser was awestruck by how little Horrell's vision impairment affected him.
“I couldn't believe he was so competent,” said Houser, 58, of Greensburg. “He can see without seeing.”
Houser was one of several Greensburg YMCA members who attended a luncheon for Horrell on Friday in the gymnasium to congratulate him on his retirement after 56 years of employment.
“Phil's going to be missed,” said Houser, who has known Horrell for 25 years. “Many of the older members come to receive a rubdown from Phil. That's why they come here. They don't come here to work out. They come to get a rubdown to ease their pains and sore muscles two or three times a week, and it's worth it to them for Phil to be here. It's going to hurt when he's gone.”
Horrell, 81, of Greensburg, came into his profession while working at the Association for the Blind in Pittsburgh.
“At lunchtime once, the director was going through different professions that blind people had gotten into, and he mentioned massage,” Horrell said. “He asked if I was interested, and I said, ‘Well, I think so,' and he took that as a yes.”
Horrell's director contacted the State Council for the Blind, who reached out to the Young Men's Hebrew Association in Pittsburgh. The YMHA agreed to train Horrell as a masseur, and he started working in Greensburg in May 1957.
Since then, Horrell served nearly 100,000 people, appreciating the “camaraderie” he formed with many clients.
He enjoyed “the people and just the idea that maybe somehow I'm bringing comfort to somebody else,” Horrell said.
He said he decided to retire upon learning in January that his job would become part time.
At his retirement luncheon, Horrell enjoyed a buffet of sandwiches, drinks and cake with his coworkers, clients and friends.
“I've had good relationships with my members,” Horrell said. “They mean more to me than anything else.”
Horrell loves music. He belonged to the McKeesport Chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society until it disbanded in 2008, and he now sings in a quartet with former chapter members. The group has several performances lined up for the fall at local rest homes, and they have promised to sing at each other's funerals.
Horrell combined his two passions while working at the YMCA, often whistling and singing throughout the day.
“Music and the massage have been places for me to have an outlet for how I feel about people,” Horrell said.
Music was an important part of his appointments with Ernie DiMartino, 58, of Greensburg, who received massages from Horrell for approximately 14 years.
“I love the way he sings Sinatra,” DiMartino said. “I have a (Sinatra) CD that I keep in my locker. I put it in the CD player while he massages me. For the last 10 years we've been listening to Sinatra together, and he's learned the words.”
The tunes served as a timer for Horrell.
“He actually would tell me, ‘I'm a little behind today' because there are certain parts of my body that he would be working on during each song. How else is he going to tell time?” DiMartino said. “That's how he would tell time.”
DiMartino, the president of DiMartino Ice Co. of Jeannette, has relied on Horrell to relieve his work-related woes.
“Massage is very good for you in many ways,” DiMartino said. “Being in the ice business, I have back pain from lifting 300-pound blocks of ice on a regular basis. I no longer lift anymore, but (massage) has also benefited me mentally to relieve the stress of everyday business.”
When George O'Brien took his position as the Greensburg YMCA's CEO 10 months ago, he heard the company had an “iconic masseur.”
“He's a very engaging employee and has strong relationships with our current members,” O'Brien said. “He's passionate about what he does and serving others. He cultivates relationships with them.”
Horrell has received a lifetime membership to the YMCA. He would like to take trips with his second wife, Sharyn, to visit his son Donald in Maryland, as well as his son David in Florida. Sons Phillip and Daniel live in the area.
“At almost 82, I don't know if I want to do too much of anything,” he said, laughing.
Horrell said he will miss the “fellowship” with his coworkers and clients.
“I've really appreciated all that they've done for me,” Horrell said. “I may have done a lot for them, but they've also done a lot for me.”
Nicole Chynoweth is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2862 or firstname.lastname@example.org.